In September, Stacked will feature guest posts from some of our favorite local bloggers. Our first guest web logger is 5chw4r7z, one of Downtown Cincinnati’s most prolific and entertaining blogging bon vivants. You can- and should- follow his adventures here.
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It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility, not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.
~ Montgomery Schuyler, Harper’s Weekly, May 24, 1883
So begins the The Great Bridge, a book my Dad loaned me shortly after I moved to Cincinnati and it left quite an impression. While the book is about the Brooklyn Bridge, it touches on Cincinnati and the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge. This was the prototype with which Roebling proved his new ideas of suspending bridges from heavy towers.
David G. McCullough writes in a very concise manner which seems dry at first until the details and richness of the story pull you in and along.
The first person introduced is John Augustus Roebling who grew up and studied in Berlin, immigrates to Butler County, PA. and begins his engineering career building aqueducts. Years later he starts a wire business and pushes suspension bridge technology to help sell steel cable.
Through John we’re introduced to his son Washington Roebling, just as great an engineer as his father, he invents caissons to dig the riverbed for the heavy towers, and tries to understand caisson disease, which we now know as the bends.
John is known as the designer and builder of both the bridges, but the truth is that Washington built the Cincinnati bridge and when John’s foot is crushed in an accident on a dock and he dies of lockjaw, Washington redesigned parts of the Brooklyn Bridge and built it too.
The book takes us through the graft and corruption in New York in which Boss Tweed plays a large part and Washington Roebling deftly avoids. Larger than life characters such as Mark Twain visit the bridge construction and wax poetic.
The bridge is the narrative but the book really paints a portrait of American life in the 1870s and 80s.
When the bridge opened to much fanfare in 1883 they threw the largest party in the world and shot off several tons of fireworks. 50,000 people came in on trains alone to see the grand opening, President Authur and Governor Adams were in attendance. Years later when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon a very old lady told reporters the excitement she had seen was not so much compared to what she had seen “on the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge.”
The Great Bridge has stuck with me and gave me a great appreciation for the Cincinnati Roebling Bridge, for the sacrifices and obstacles both man made and natural that people overcome to do great things.